We fool ourselves if we think we’re coming up with any new ideas.
Doug Tunnel, 61
Owner, Brick House Vineyards
Doug Tunnell, 61
Brick House Vineyards
ON A SUMMER MORNING, in the middle of Brick House Vineyards’ splendor—emerald fields, tranquil pinot noir rows, lazy dogs on the titular brick house’s porch—Doug Tunnell labors to pull a tractor out of a ditch.
It’s an apt moment for a man who pursues an idealistic, experimental career with marked humility. Even though he’s considered one of Oregon’s most forward-thinking vintners, for example, this organic and biodynamic pioneer seems leery of the very idea. “I’m flattered, of course, but I’m just a consolidator,” Tunnell says, noting the ancient history of his craft. “The Jordan Valley exported wine to the Nile in the time of the pharaohs.”
While Oregon’s wine trade has been a haven for freethinkers since it began in the ’60s, Tunnell has driven it toward new frontiers. The Oregon native and oenophile worked as a CBS News foreign correspondent, covering the Lebanese civil war of the early ’80s and European capitals, before heading home to buy a dilapidated hazelnut orchard in 1990 and pursue the then-nascent process of organic winemaking.
“There weren’t many role models,” he recalls. “I think most people were like, ‘Yeah, that TV guy says he’s gonna grow organically. Heard that before.’”
Brick House won quick acclaim—a ’98 pinot noir received 94 points (out of 100) from Wine Spectator, for example. But soon enough even some organic practices (particularly copper-based fungicides) made Tunnell uneasy. He joined a handful of winemakers studying biodynamic farming, a semimystical regime known for lunar schedules and elaborate compost mixtures produced, in some instances, by burying cattle horns full of manure. To Tunnell, biodynamic seemed as logical as holistic.
“It’s a perception of the farm as a living place,” he says. “But on the other hand, great domains in Burgundy farm biodynamically and get $600 a bottle.”
Whatever one may think of the biodynamic method’s more eccentric trappings, Brick House’s results are hard to argue with. One reviewer proclaimed a 2008 pinot “a purist’s delight,” and Brick House’s vintages comfortably fetch top-dollar prices at the on-site tasting table that’s key to the winery’s business model.
Tunnell’s temperament seems ideally balanced for a business that is one part refined aesthetic experience, one part vertically integrated value-added agriculture. “In Oregon, we keep wine down to earth,” he says. “The younger generation doesn’t want all the snooty trappings anyway. If we remind everyone that this product is made by guys with a lot of hydraulic fluid on their jeans, we’ll be good.” —Zach Dundas